Verbal clues to a lie
Investigators should look for specific verbal clues that reveal subjects are withholding or fabricating information
Truthful individuals being questioned during an investigation generally feel confident that their statements will be deemed believable. Subjects who are withholding or fabricating relevant information are not as self-assured and on occasion respond with specific verbal clues that reveal their efforts to mask their deception, while at the same time trying to “sell” their answers as credible.
Verbal indicators of deception need to be evaluated in context with the case facts, evidence and non-verbal behavior. This article will review several of the most common verbal clues to deception. Most investigators have heard these responses at one time or another from deceptive individuals.
establishing a subject's behavioral baseline norm
To make an accurate assessment of the suspect’s verbal responses, the investigator needs to establish the subject’s behavioral baseline norm. This should be accomplished at the beginning of the interview by engaging the subject in casual conversation. This can include a series of biographical questions such as what is the subject’s name, address and length of residency, employer and work duties.
When questioning the individual on topics he is likely to tell the truth about, the investigator can evaluate whether or not the subject tends to use any of the phrases described below as part of his normal speech pattern. If he does, then the investigator has to exercise caution in considering those responses as indicative of deception as the interview continues.
Identifying deceptive responses
It is not uncommon for the deceptive subject to avoid answering the investigator’s questions by engaging in stalling tactics or evasive responses:
- Responding with a question
“Are you talking to me?”
“What was that?”
- Referral to a previous question
“As I told the other investigator, I had nothing to do with it…”
“As I stated in my deposition (under oath), I had nothing to do with…”
“Lying by referral” allows the subject to give the investigator a truthful response (he did tell the other investigator he did not do it without directly denying it to the interviewer).
“My hand to God…”
“I swear on my kids’ lives…”
“I swear on a stack of Bibles…”
Other deceptive individuals will attempt to sell the investigator on their honesty or suggesting that they have bad memory:
- Validating the lie
“To tell you the truth…”
“To be perfectly honest with you…”
- Blaming memory
“As best as I recall…”
“To the best of my memory…”
“I really don’t recall…”
Other verbal characteristics suggestive of deception include the following:
- Repeating the question
“So, what you want to know is…”
“Let me be perfectly clear…”
“So why you’re talking to me is because…”
- Unnecessarily defensive
“Are you suggesting that I did that?”
“Are you accusing me?”
“So, you think I did that?”
- Overly polite or complimentary
“No, I didn’t do it. You know you have such an interesting job. How did you get into this 'field?'”
“I really didn’t do this. I bet you’ve been involved in some very interesting issues, right?”
“No, sergeant, I’m not involved, honestly. Oh, you’re not a sergeant, you should be!”
- Specific denials
“I did not fondle that woman.” (How does the subject define fondle?)
“I did not cause that fire last evening.” (No, it was late afternoon when the subject set the fire.)
“I did not take that $885 deposit from Mary’s desk.” (No, it was $890 deposit from Mary’s file cabinet.)
- Avoids realistic or definitive words
“I did not do that to her.”
“I did not borrow that money.”
“I was not involved with that.”
Truthful subjects are more likely to incorporate realistic words such as steal, rape and molest in their denial.
Deceptive subjects may try to sell their answer by enunciating every word, by denying with generalized statements, or by lying by omission:
- Do not use contractions
“I did not do that.”
“I did not cause that fire.”
“I did not sexually touch that woman.”
- Generalization statements
“Usually I get home around 4 pm.”
“Generally, I set the alarm.”
“Typically, I delete my emails daily.”
- Lying by omission
When the subject is asked, “When was the last time you saw or spoke to Mary? (Mary is a homicide victim).
“Oh, gosh, it has to be quite some time ago…”
“I really don’t see her very much…”
“Probably some time ago at the workout center…”
- Closure statements
These may occur following a subject’s explanation to an investigative question. They are indicative of deception (editing out critical details or embellishing), as well as the subject not wanting to be questioned further in this specific area.
“And that’s it.”
“And that’s all I have to say.”
“I’ve nothing more to add.”
In addition to verbal clues to truth and deception the investigator has to be cognizant of two other areas of behavior that occur simultaneously with the subject’s verbal responses:
- Nonverbal behavior: eye contact, body posturing and grooming gestures.
- Paralinguistic behavior: speed, pitch, clarity and delays.
Always keep in mind that timing is an essential consideration in evaluating a subject’s verbal and nonverbal behavior during an investigative interview. Generally speaking, verbal responses will be more significant to the investigator than nonverbal cues.
And that’s it! I swear. Would I lie to you?